Women’s football has come a very long way in just a year from our last post. However, there is still much more work to be done to bring the level equivalent to where the men’s game is currently at. Ten years ago there existed an indifference towards the few women who chose to persevere in what many viewed a novel and headstrong manner to play the game.
If the Noughties was the decade in which players such as Alex Scott edged from washing the shirts and shorts of the Arsenal men’s team towards the possibility of making a living from football, then this last decade has been the one that has provided respect and with it professionalism, sponsorship, support and the chance to make a modest living out of the game.
Delayed by a year because of the economic downturn, the Women’s Super League was launched in 2011 with eight teams and not without controversy as 16 teams applied for places. By 2014 it was expanded to include a second tier of 10 teams, with Doncaster Belles relegated to make way for the revamped Manchester City.
In 2017 the Football Association switched the leagues from a summer to a winter schedule to match the men’s calendar, while launching its four-year Game Plan for Growth strategy. By the launch of the 2018-19 season, a full-time professional top tier and semi-professional second division was in place. The changes have been rapid.
Attendances have gone from an average of 728 in 2014 to 1,128 by 2016 but then dipped as the winter switch took its toll, eventually averaging 996 for the first fully professional season.
Domestically audiences have stood still and interest has been driven internationally. Viewing figures for the England Lionesses at international competitions have steadily climbed. For the 2011 World Cup in Germany a peak match average viewing figure of 1.7m was reached. The 2013 Euros were a bit of a blip, a 1.3m peak match average was prevented from climbing further when England crashed out of their group with one point. By 2015 the World Cup in Canada saw a peak of 2.4m watching England’s semi-final defeat to Japan. At the 2017 Euros 4m watched their exit to the Netherlands (a 66% increase on 2015).
Last year, though, felt like a turning point. After a decade, or two even, of somewhat steady growth women’s football took a leap forward. A massive 11.7m watched England’s defeat by USA at the World Cup, a 192.5% increase on their 2017 Netherlands exit.
By mid-November domestic Women’s Super League attendances, boosted by big games, were averaging 4,112 plus an additional 1,425 with the showpiece games at Stamford Bridge and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The close to £20m investment by Barclays in the top division and grassroots football was the pinnacle of a host of sponsorship deals for clubs, the national team and players.
There is a real optimism in women’s football. The media, the FA, commercial partners, clubs and fans are generally speaking on the same page. There is a belief in the importance of building the women’s game, perhaps a result of the way attitudes have changed around women and women’s rights more widely, but that is coupled with a much cruder realisation that there are real longer‑term financial and image benefits to backing the women’s game.
And, while attitudes generally have changed dramatically, there is still a long way to go – within organisations but also more generally in society.
Women’s football should be swimming with the tide but, unfortunately, there is still much for which to be fought. Here’s hoping this decade sees that change.
Check out our other blog post on one of our own women players making big strides in the women’s game. If you want to find out how we can help you with girls football pathways please get in touch.